Free Public Transport, Fare Integration, and Capacity

There’s an ongoing debate about free public transport that I’m going to get into later, but, for now, I want to zoom in on one aspect of the 9€ ticket, and how it impacted public transport capacity in Germany. A commenter on the Neoliberal Reddit group claimed that during the three months of nearly free public transport fares, there was a capacity crunch due to overuse. But in fact, the impact was not actually significant on urban rail, only on regional trains, in a way that underscores the importance of fare integration more than anything.

What was the 9€ ticket?

Last year, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fuel prices shot up everywhere. This created populist pressure to alleviate the price of fuel through temporary tax cuts, which further exacerbated last year’s high inflation. The center-right element within the German coalition, FDP, moved away from its traditional position as deficit scold and demanded a cut in the fuel tax; as a compromise, the Greens agreed to it on condition that during the three months of reduced fuel tax, June through August, public transport fares would be cut as well. Thus the 9€ monthly was born.

The 9€ ticket applied throughout Germany. The key feature wasn’t just the deep discount but also the fact that on one ticket, people could travel all over Germany; normally, my Berlin monthly doesn’t let me ride the local trains in Leipzig or Munich. This stimulated massive domestic tourism, since people could travel between cities on slow regional trains for free and then also travel around their destination city for free as well.

What now?

The 9€ ticket clearly raised public transport ridership in the three months it was in effect. This led to demands to make it permanent, running up against the problem that money is scarce and in Germany ticket fares generate a significant proportion of public transport revenue, 7.363 billion € out of 14.248 billion € in expenses (source, p. 36).

One partial move in that direction is a 29€ monthly valid only within Berlin, not in the suburbs (zone C of the S-Bahn) or outside the system; unlike the 9€ ticket, which was well-advertised all over national and local media and was available at every ticketing machine, the 29€ monthly is only available via annual subscription, which requires a permanent address in the city, and the regular machines only sell the usual 86€ monthly and don’t even let you know that a cheaper option exists. The subscription is also not available on a rolling basis – one must do it before the start of the month, which is not advertised, and Ant6n‘s family was caught unaware one month.

Negotiations for a nationwide 49€ ticket are underway, proceeding at the pace of a German train, or perhaps that of German arms deliveries to Ukraine. This was supposed to start at the beginning of 2023, then in April, and now it’s expected to debut in May. I’m assuming it will eventually happen – German trains get you there eventually, if hours late occasionally.

What’s the impact on capacity?

The U- and S-Bahn systems didn’t at all get overcrowded. They got a bit more crowded than usual, but nothing especially bad, since the sort of trips induced by zero marginal cost are off-peak. Rush hour commuters are not usually price-sensitive: whenever one’s alternative to the train is a car, the difference between a 9€ monthly and an 86€ one is a fraction of the difference between either ticket and the cost of owning and using a car, and at rush hour, cars are limited by congestion as well. Off-peak ridership did visibly grow, but not to levels that congest the system.

But then the hourly regional trains got completely overcrowded. If you wanted to ride the free trains from Berlin to Leipzig, you’d be standing for the last third of the trip. This is because the regional rail system (as opposed to S-Bahn) is designed as a low-capacity coverage-type system for connecting to small towns like Cottbus or Dessau.

The broader issue is that there is always a sharp ridership gradient between large cities and everywhere else, even per capita. In some places the gradient is sharper than elsewhere; the difference between New York and the rest of the United States is massive. But even in Germany, with a smaller gradient than one might be used to from France or the UK or Japan, public transport ridership is disproportionately dense urban or perhaps suburban, on trams and U- and S-Bahns.

The regional trains are another world. Really, European and Japanese trains can be thought of as three worlds: very high-use urban and suburban rail networks, high-use intercity rail connecting the main cities usually at high speed, and low-usage, highly-subsidized regional trains outside the major metropolitan regions. Germany has relatively good trains in the last category, if worse than in Switzerland, Austria, or the Netherlands: they run hourly with timed connections, so that people can connect between them to many destinations, they just usually don’t because cities the size of Dessau don’t generate a lot of ridership. The 9€ ticket gave people a free intercity trip if they chained trips on these regional trains, at the cost of getting to Leipzig in a little less than three hours rather than 1:15 on the ICE; the regional trains were not expanded to meet this surge traffic, which is usually handled on longer intercity trainsets, creating standing-room only conditions on trains where this should not happen off-peak or perhaps ever.

The issue of fare integration

The overcrowding seen on the regional trains last summer is really an issue of fare integration, which I hope is resolved as the 49€ gives people free trips on such trains permanently. A cornerstone of good public transport planning is that the fare between two points should be the same no matter what vehicle one uses, with exceptions only for first-class cars if available. Ein Ticket für alles, exclaims the system in Zurich, to great success. Anything else slices the market into lower-frequency segments, providing worse service than under total fare integration. Germany understands this – the Verkehrsverbund was invented in Hamburg in 1965, and subsequently this idea was adopted elsewhere until the country has been divided into metropolitan zones with internal fare integration.

The regional trains that cross Verkehrsverbund zones have their own fares, and normally that’s okay. Intercity trains were never part of this system, and that’s okay too – they’re not about one’s usual trip, and so an intercity ticket doesn’t include free transfers to local public transport unless one pays extra for that amenity. The fares between intercity trains and chains of regional trains were not supposed to be integrated, and normally that’s fine too, because any fare savings from chaining trips on slower trains are swamped both by the headache of buying so many tickets and by the difference in trip time and reliability.

The 9€ ticket broke that system, and the 49€ ticket will have the same effect: for three months, trips on slower trains were free, leading to overcrowding on a low-capacity network that normally isn’t that important to the country’s overall public transport system.

Worse, the operating costs of slow trains are higher than those of fast trains: they are smaller and so have a higher ratio of crew to passengers than ICEs, and their slowness means that crew and maintenance costs per kilometer are higher than those of fast trains. Even energy costs are higher on slow trains, because high-speed lines run at 300 km/h over long stretches, whereas regional lines make many stops (which had very little usage compared with the train’s volume of passengers last summer) and have slow zones rather than cruising at 130 or 160 km/h over long stretches. So the system gave people a price incentive to use the higher-cost trains and not the lower-cost ones.

This is the most important thing to resolve about any future fare reductions. Some mechanism is needed to ensure that the most advantageous way to travel between two cities is the one that DB can provide the most efficiently, which is IC/ICE and not RegionalBahn.


  1. Henry Miller

    I’ve been thinking about zones a bit. I think that the first zone should always be any destination within 20km of the riders front door – legal residence. If you have to ride outside that 20km radius to transfer to a different line, then anything on the ride to that transfer point (even if outside the 20km zone), and the other line also count, even if you never used the other line. This would have been impossible to figure out 50 years ago, but today with computers it is possible (not easy, but I think possible).. You can make the next zone lean strongly to the city center or something, but anything within 20km should be in reach for the lowest price as that is close to home.

    The 20km trips is someplace close to home. People should be doing most of their travel in that zone anyway. Church, school, shopping – no reason to leave that zone in general. Maybe you go outside for work, or concerts/sports, but in general you live there, stay there. Of course 20km is somewhat random, you can debate the exact distance, but the idea I think is sound.

    Note that if someone is traveling I count their hotel as their legal residence – cities should give a discount on passes if the traveler holds a pass to a network in a different city. Students may transfer their legal residence between the dorm and home for weekends/classes. (but the ride then may be a multi-zone trip)

    Ideally you want everyone on an unlimited rides monthly family pass within your city. That means transit is useful enough that you use it for all trips, and there is no friction to taking another trip.

    Intercity trips are rarer for most and can have different costs.

    • po64

      I don’t think that would be reasonable, since the point of zonal fares is to make it easier to figure out where you can go. Making zones based on geographical distance means that the zone boundary will be somewhere random (that is, unpredictable and potentially hard to remember), and that kind of defeats the purpose.

      It also wouldn’t work well with POP fare enforcement.

      • Henry Miller

        The point of current zones it to force people who live outside of the city center to drive to local destinations as the fares are so expensive for short trips. This isn’t the stated point of course, but it is the effect. If you are happy with a low off-peak mode share current zones are fine. However if you want people who use transit for local trips you need to come up with a system that doesn’t discourage them. Someone who lives and works in zone 4 shouldn’t have to pay as if they are always going to zone 1 – a trip they never/rarely make.

        Today we have computers. It is not a big deal for computers to figure out where the 20km zone ends for each person as you scan their ticket. If I proposed the above in 1950 you would be correct that it is impossible to figure out, but these days all the POP enforces are using a computer to validate you have paid anyway.

  2. Mark N.

    I think you have really pointed out the weakness of the whole Deutschland-Ticket idea. The German government really seems to have gotten hung up on the “Deutschland” aspect of it, rather than just recognizing the great benefit and utility of the greater subsidies for regional travel. For me as a commuter with an expensive monthly pass spanning two rail groups, the huge benefit that the 9 EURO experiment had for me was not only the much cheaper price for my monthly pass, but also the sudden inclusion of rail travel to nearby areas not normally included in my pass, destinations whose cost/benefit calculation would otherwise tend to favor using my car when having to pay extra for a train ticket.

    Although ultimately the proposal is very good on balance* (I’ll certainly be saving a ton of money once the new ticket is introduced), the same benefit at likely a significantly lower public investment could be achieved by just providing a heavily subsidized regional ticket for everyone countrywide — perhaps any travel within a radius of 100 km from a person’s residence.

    * Assuming adequate investments in public transportation are made.

  3. chris

    This reminds me of Japan’s “seishun 18” ticket, which is a bundle of local-only day passes for the JR lines, valid during school holiday seasons. Tokyo to Kyoto in 9 hours, apparently, if you get the transfers just right. I’ve never heard of it causing crowding on local trains in rural areas. Possibly it does, but I think it’s more likely that most people don’t want to spend that long on a succession of local trains.

    Maybe the issue with the German version is just novelty, and things would settle down if it were priced a little higher and perceived as a permanent part of the system.

    • Sassy

      1. Shinkansen is a much, much better experience than ICE, and Japanese people are more willing to pay for it.

      2. Kaisoku is often not RegionalBahn. Trains are typically metro style trains, and the stops are more frequent. This means there’s a lot more capacity per train, and the passenger experience is typically worse. While there are some services with transverse seating and wider stop spacing, taking an intercity trip without using intercity trains means spending a lot of time on services meant for trips within a metro area and optimized for inner suburban and city center trips.

      As a result, despite not being age restricted, afaik most Seishun 18 users are indeed students on holiday.

    • Jason

      Seishun 18 regularly adds pressure to certain rural choke points. For example, I had the pleasure of squeezing myself into a completely packed 2-car train near Kuroiso several years ago.

  4. David S.

    While the 49€-Ticket will certainly encourage cheapskate long-distance travelers to take regional trains instead of more efficient long-distance trains, I’m not sure it’s on the whole a negative. The novelty and time limited aspect of the 9€ made demand much stronger that I assume would be the case for the 49€-Ticket.

    The higher price of 49€ also means that for single trips, little money is saved for non-public-transit users as compared to the 9€-Ticket, weakening it’s attractiveness.

    Most people will still choose IC/ICE trains for longer connections, since the (often) much longer travel time of regional trains and the notorious non-reliability of german-railways when it comes to transfers will make chaining many regional trains unattractive for long trips for everyone except those which don’t value their time (students and poor people).

    Many regional trains necessary for these longer trips only run hourly (or even worse), which makes them unattractive for “regular” user of regional trains. With more people using them, this also justifies a higher (half-hourly) frequency, thus the cheapskates making it more attractive for normal commuters.

    My experience has been that in sections where high-speed lines exist, there is often a stark differential between regional and long distance service, as opposed to regions where there is no high-speed line and the travel speed and even stopping pattern of ICs often resembles the faster regional trains (for example Stuttgart-Nürnberg and Stuttgart-Mannheim or Hamburg-Westerland and Hamburg-Berlin).

    This means the case for the long-distance service over low-speed lines weakens (where the benefits of lower energy usage and less staffing cost weaken), but the one for long-distance over high-speed lines contrasts much more favorably, also strengthening the case for building high-speed lines.

    I think fast regional service and slow, legacy-track long distance service should be integrated into one, as is already done in a few lines. This could take the form of different seating areas or (for services that have long high-speed and legacy sections) only allowing regional tickets in the low-speed sections.

    This (of course) assumes that Infrastructure can get expanded, which isn’t a given, and that the long-distance travel demand over regional lines of the 49€-Ticket isn’t extremely peaky (like only taking place in the summer).

  5. Richard Mlynarik

    Just a reminder that we’ve been here before with the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket.

    The sky didn’t fall, it was used by cheapskates (self included!) and those who enjoy diverse secondary routes and secondary cities (self included!) and those who are willing to take a bet on Taktverkehr connections being made (self included, but as a tourist my time was hardly valuable), it was a lot of fun for a certain class of person (uh, that would have been me.)

    I don’t have strong ideas on whether this is good policy in the existing political environment, but my personal observation was mostly of internal tourism and bonus choice trips and slightly higher loads on services that would otherwise be lightly used — all positive, in my books, but evidently not sufficiently revenue positive, though it lasted over two decades.

    It surprises me to look back and see that this was available during the years when Hartmut Mehdorn was CEO of DB, which of course were years of destructive distractions flirting with privitization.

    • Alon Levy

      Hey, Mehdorn has redeemed himself through years of advising RZhD. For Ukraine and NATO’s sake, I hope RZhD listened to his advice.

      What happened during the three months of free regional trains last summer was very high levels of crowding on these trains. Berlin-Leipzig involved a connection at Dessau, Wittenberg, or another such point at the interface between two different RB/RE networks (or our RE network and the Leipzig S-Bahn). The onward connection toward Leipzig never had any free seats, and there was not much room to stand either, on a train not really designed to have standees. There was practically no turnover – these were not really used as regional trains, just as slow intercities.

      Granted, I guess a lot of people were doing it for the novelty…

    • Sascha Claus

      Ahh, the SWT … which gave us gems like the two-hourly (on weekends) RB Bad Dürrenberg – Leipzig deliberately missing the connection with the train from Naumburg (and Erfurt/Jena) entice people to go via Halle instead, or the RE Frankfurt – Kassel with a dozen double-deck coaches and two locomotives in top-and-tail formation across the steeper, mountainous line via Gießen because the line via Fulda hat many changes or the ICE, which is not included. (And voilá, were back to the topic of this post.)

  6. Frederick

    The main difference between ICE and lower tiers is the rolling stock. ICE uses rolling stocks that can go over 200km/h. IC, IRE and RE use slower rolling stocks.

    Therefore, on low-speed lines, the only advantage of ICE is the stopping pattern. If an ICE doesn’t skip stops, it will be as slow as an RE. This happens in Rhine-Ruhr, say between Dortmund and Düsseldorf.

    Even if it does skip stops, the time saved can be minimal. Before the HSR in Ulm opened, an ICE doing Stuttgart-Ulm (non-stop) took 56 minutes, while the RE took 66 minutes (stopping like 4 or 5 stops in between).

    On the other hand, places where the ICE is much faster than the RE also exist, like Berlin-Leipzig as Alon mentioned. The ICE goes non-stop from Berlin to Wittenberg (sometimes even skipping Wittenberg) meanwhile the RE calls at every stop on the Berlin-Halle line except three stops between Ludwigsfelde and Jüterbog. So there is nothing express about this particular RegionalExpress.

    The point I want to express is that ICE/IC/RE or other abbreviations do not always communicate clearly about how quick the train is, unlike in France or Japan where TGV/Shinkansen are usually at least twice as fast as the slow trains.

  7. Sascha Claus

    Not yet mentioned is the lack of benefits of the 49€-Ticket. Most (if not all) transit associations offer subscription tickets which include an additional adult and three to five children in the off-peak time, either for all subscriptions or for a few euros more. This makes it free and easy to take your family to town after work or on weekends.

    The 49€-Ticket likely won’t include anything like this but will be much cheaper, so the price for “an additional adult and three to five children in the off-peak time” goes up from 0–5€ per month to 50€ per month. Unless the prices ar adjusted downward, nobody will buy these tickets anymore, and off-peak trips with family will default back to the automobile.

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